The U.S. Bureau of Land Management is expected to announce a lease sale in the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on Monday.
The announcement will ignite a new firestorm of controversy, among many others, around the president.
The sale would offer leases in the 1.5-million-acre coastal refuge at the northern part of the refuge, which covers 18 million acres in northeast Alaska.
“We will be doing a 30-day call for nominations and comments on tracts. That will be followed by a 30-day notice of sale,” said Lesli Ellis-Wouters, Alaska communication director for the BLM.
Given that timing, a lease sale could be held in 60 days, or in mid-January, days before President Donald Trump is scheduled to leave office on Jan. 20.
Whether this will actually happen in uncertain. Conservation groups have filed lawsuits against an ANWR lease sale and can be expected to ask for a court injunction blocking the sale.
Also, President-elect Joe Biden opposes ANWR drilling and could move to reverse Trump’s action if a sale is held. A new Biden administration could make it difficult to obtain permits for drilling. That is likely to have an impact on bidding.
Federal and state geologists say the coastal plain geology is highly prospective for major oil and gas discoveries, but national conservation groups have fought drilling in the refuge, citing impacts on polar bears and migrating caribou.
BLM recently approved a Record of Decision on a Final Environmental Impact Statement for leasing. The announcement expected Monday would spell out the process for BLM will follow in holding the sale.
The federal tax act of 2019, in which Congress authorized leasing in the refuge, requires two lease sales be held with the first no later than 2021.
Industry is known to be somewhat unenthusiastic about ANWR despite its potential because of the intense politics and controversy connected with any effort to drill and develop discoveries.
However, oil and gas discoveries have been made on state lands just west of the refuge, in the Point Thomson area. ExxonMobil and BP have discovered and developed a large natural gas project in the area, which is now producing liquid condensates. Hilcorp Energy now owns BP’s share of Point Thomson.
Crude oil has also been discovered including a deposit discovered by BP that is right on the Canning River border with ANWR. Jade Energy, an independent company, is now exploring the prospect.
The Point Thomson gas project has resulted in infrastructure being built, including a pipeline, airfield and oil and gas production facilities, just a few miles west of the refuge. That would facilitate development of petroleum discoveries in the coastal plain.
Major conservation groups are already criticizing the action. “The Trump administration is barreling forward with a last-minute lease sale in America’s most iconic wilderness after sidestepping the environmental review process mandated by the National Environmental Policy Act,” said Jody Potts, a spokesperson for the Han Gwich’in Native Movement, a coalition of indigenous groups opposing ANWR drilling.
“The Interior Department’s own documents show it has altered or disregarded scientific data on drilling’s impacts on imperiled wildlife, including threatened polar bears who den on the coastal plain; drastically overestimated potential leasing revenue,” Potts said in a statement.
In preparing for the sale the Interior Department failed to adequately consult with the indigenous peoples of the Gwichʼin Nation of Alaska and Canada, she said. The Gwichʼin make their home along the migratory route of the Porcupine caribou herd and rely on the herd for their survival, Potts said.
Conservation groups have also been lobbying major financial institutions to chill investment in the Arctic, particularly ANWR. Five major U.S. banks — Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, Morgan Stanley and Wells Fargo — are among several that have announced they will not fund any new oil and gas development in the Arctic refuge.